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Volitional Selection


GeorgeW
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E.O Wilson in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, has some comments, with respect to humans, about "volitional selection." This is the recently developing technology of genetic engineering. This could have a profound impact on human evolution and raises serious moral issues, i.e. 'playing God.'

 

There are, of course, some felicitous applications such correcting health problems caused by genetic mutations. Then, there are the questions of engineering the ideal child; healthy, brilliant, athletic, beautiful, etc.

 

Wilson is opposed to what he calls "eugenic manipulation." What sayeth PCs? Should all genetic manipulation of humans be baned? How about therapeutic? What about animals? plants?

 

George

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For me there are concerns that it could be abused, but I don't think we should be hysterical about it (of course, not suggesting you are being, George). I don't expect scientists to start crossing people with birds etc to come up with scifi hybrids. But I do see the benefits when it comes to screening out disease and disability. Whilst one could say it is against nature, I would question whether nature hasn't allowed us to develop this ability for a reason.

 

It can be very sensationalist for the media to talk about baby design - eye colour, hair colour, sex etc (and conjure about pictures of what somebody like Hitler might do with this technology) but is it a bad thing if it eliminates leukemia, MS, downs syndrome? I think not.

 

Is choosing a baby-to-be's sex necessarily bad by eliminating s_perm that would create the undesired choice in sex or favouring the s_perm that will create the desired sex - is s_perm a person? I don't think so.

 

Like many things, I think it's not the individual act but rather what is behind it that perhaps matters. What are the reasons for desiring such.

 

With animals and plants I don't have too many reservations, other than some concern that it's early days yet, and maybe we don't completely know the results of say genetically modifying the wheat we eat in our bread.

Edited by PaulS
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George,

 

It seems to me that it is inevitable that mankind will continue to develop technology including genetic engineering. It also seems to me it will not be stopped by raising the umbrella of any religious issues in opposition. To me, it is part of the evolution of humankind and even though it has the potentially for abuse, it will not be stopped because of the potential it has for what mankind deems as good..

 

Where will all this lead? . In my view it will lead both to to trial and error, mistakes and advancements which in the end is called progress. It is the nature of humans to do whatever in the name of progress and attempt to solve problems, be healthier, live longer , correct disorders and the like. I don't believe that any opposition by E. O. Wilson will change that course no more than opposition by traditional or fundamental taught Christians will halt the spiritual progression for Progressive Christians.

 

Just my 2 cents on the issue.

Joseph

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I don't expect scientists to start crossing people with birds etc to come up with scifi hybrids.

Scientists seem to be able to put the glow in the dark gene into just about anything so tattoo parlors could move beyond inks and piercings. :lol:

Humans have been playing God for - for as long as they have been sapiens. I agree with Joseph that the technology will be used and its success and failures will determine its continued use. Most doctors are changing IVF procedures to avoid multiple births. Prospective parents will continue to use whatever knowledge is available to 'improve' their offspring.

 

"Volitional Selection"?

How would this drive evolution? That is an interesting thought. I can imagine SF scenarios where not only do the rich get richer but the smart get smarter putting an end to upward mobility unless you steal some embryos.

 

The learning curve will be steep because of the complexity. Recent genetic studies of Pygmies have caused some to speculate that their short stature is a byproduct of hormone and immunity changes in response to their environment. Studies also suggest that what genes affect height in one population are not the same that affect height in another population.

 

The loss of diversity is the greatest danger. Being shortsighted about the need for diversity has created many ecological disasters.

 

 

Dutch

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"Volitional Selection"?

How would this drive evolution? That is an interesting thought. I can imagine SF scenarios where not only do the rich get richer but the smart get smarter putting an end to upward mobility unless you steal some embryos.

 

Actually, he doesn't explain the evolutionary mechanism. However, I assume that it would be by artificially altering the gene pool and, perhaps, reducing diversity.

 

FWIW, his objection is not religious, he is a scientist. He says that his moral objection is, in part, so that "humanity can at the very least avoid the socially corrosive effects of nepotism and privilege it is bound to serve." I think he is concerned that it would be only the affluent who would be able to utilize the technology to engineer their children.

 

I think I favor, or don't object to, therapeutic uses of the technology. But, I have an intuitive negative reaction to eugenic manipulation to design our children. And, this is not on theological grounds.

 

As to plants and animals, I am ambivalent, not so much on moral grounds, but practical grounds. If it can be demonstrated as safe and not harming the environment, I don't think I object. In a sense, all of our food sources now -- plant and animal -- have been carefully and selectively bred to achieve the desired characteristics.

 

George

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All are excellent points. I've never been one to fear advances in science and technology. However, i have to admit to being a little fearful of genetic engineering. Yes, it would be nice if we could find the genes that lead to MS, spina bifada, etc and eradicate these diseases. But will every one be able to afford the screenings? I can only speak about the U.S., but I find it unlikely. I am not fearful of the genetic screening and selection themselves. Like Joseph said, there would be some trial and error and I'm sure a lot of ethical questions would need to be addressed. No, what I'm fearful of is just what George mentioned - that only the affluent will be able to afford genetic selection and the chasm between "us-them" will widen. I fear greater differences between those who can afford it and those who cannot.

 

As far as genetically engineered plants and animal, if producing a certain type of vegetable or animal will help feed people of poorer countires, its all good. We've been using selective breeding on our pets and heard beasts and using hybrid technology in producing plants for a long time. As long as we didn't get carried away and started creating weird hybrids that had no value I don't see a problem. But then, who says if something has value?

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Just on agriculture, Yvonne, I understand that some of the concerns you raise about who can access genetic engineering for humans, also stands for agriculture. I know it's been discussed in Australia where people are concerned that the companies who create the 'new and improved' seed may restrict its use, charge a high price for its purchase, and contractually restrict the farmer from harvesting seed for use in next year's crops, thus forcing the farmer to always buy new seed from the company rather than the traditional way of retaining some of the crop for the following year's planting.

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As to plants and animals, I am ambivalent, not so much on moral grounds, but practical grounds. If it can be demonstrated as safe and not harming the environment, I don't think I object. In a sense, all of our food sources now -- plant and animal -- have been carefully and selectively bred to achieve the desired characteristics.

George

I guess I have a sliding scale based on treating people and animals with dignity. The higher up the scale the higher the standard. IVF that leads to octoplets is a violation of that dignity. I agree George that sometimes it is not the individual plant is of concern but whether it threatens our environment. I think we will make the same mistakes we have made with relocation of animals and plants to control pests.

 

Orson Scott Card wrote a short story which included the enslavement of people who were forced to grow extra limbs and organs for replacement in others.

 

Dutch

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It's not the advancement itself that worries me - it's the slippery slope of evil possibilities that follows.

 

Being able to eradicate things like MS, spina bifida, etc would be beneficial to society, IMO. However, where does it stop? Should people be able to engineer the "perfect" baby? What would that even look like? It also sends a dangerous message that those who are differently abled (or just plain different) do not have value in our society.

 

As for genetically-modifying food - again, good and bad. If scientists were able to create food that would be able to grow in places with drought, for example, that would be awesome. What a great way to help people who are starving! However, eating food that is "created" can cause health problems. For example, the aspertame vs. sugar debate - aspertame is artificial, and some (I include myself here) believe it to be worse for you than sugar - diabetics excepted, of course.

 

My point is that there are good and bad sides to this (and in all things) and morality is an impossible thing to police.

 

By the way - for those talking about sex-selection.... some countries that favour males over females are already suffering a shortage of marriagable, fertile women as the outcome of female infanticide. Now that sex-selective abortions are happening (and yes, I am pro-choice, that's not the point here) what does that mean for the future of humankind, related to population and balance?

 

Science is awesome, and yet kind of scary.

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I guess I have a sliding scale based on treating people and animals with dignity. The higher up the scale the higher the standard. IVF that leads to octoplets is a violation of that dignity.

 

Dutch,

 

I agree with this, and I suspect that this is a standard most of us intuitively apply. Few humans care about the suffering of individual insects, fewer yet, the suffering of plants.

 

George

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Should people be able to engineer the "perfect" baby?

There have always been some who do what ever they can to effect this. New technology won't introduce a new motive. But we can be part of the conversation that creates common ideas about the moral limits of the technology.

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There is an irony here that I think deserves a serious discussion. When Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975, it was met with a storm of criticism. The argument used against his research was that it would be used as the basis for eugenics policies. Taken by itself, this does not seem too controversial. However, the story of eugenics leads back to Hitler and Nazi Germany and I don't think I need to elaborate on how this gets so very sticky.

 

I will say that I like Wilson's work. I get the feeling he is a decent person with a deep concern for the future of humanity. The debate over Wilson's work uncovers some very important issues. Some of Wilson's detractors hold the theory that there is no connection between biology and the realm of culture and society. Wilson was then painted as a strict determinist (which he is not), and that is how these kinds of issues often evolve.

 

I do not think Wilson is a strict determinist. Instead, I think his thinking is more along the line of reciprocal interactionism. The choices we make (volition) can have a huge impact on the course of evolution. The reciprocal is also true. The choices we do not make could also affect the course of evolution.

 

History gives us a mixed bag. After WW II, there were many who would have prevented Wilson from publishing his research. I don't think they were evil in any way, but I do not know them personally. But, in order to plan where we are going, we need to understand where we've been. That is a major theme found in Whithead when he talks about "the art of progress".

 

There is a view that cuts across religious and secular groups. It is a view I share. Technology often advances at a faster pace than the ethics needed to constrain it. I think Wilson is right, we need to be cautious here.

 

Myron

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There is an irony here that I think deserves a serious discussion. When Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975, it was met with a storm of criticism.

 

Myron, It seems that he is now enjoying a revival and much wider acceptance. His comments cited in this thread are really a minor portion of his new book, but an issue with moral implications I thought appropriate to this forum.

 

I think what was controversial about Wilson's theory was the marriage of biology and social behavior. He claims that humans are genetically predisposed to social cooperation. He claims that there are two levels of natural selection - individual and group. The existence of two levels of selection are what, I think, caused the blow back.

 

Frankly, I don't know enough to challenge him, but his case is strong and it makes a lot of sense to me. To claim our social behavior, which is a human universal, is strictly cultural is, IMO, a reach. If not genetic, how do we explain the social behavior of ants?

 

George

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Myron, It seems that he is now enjoying a revival and much wider acceptance. His comments cited in this thread are really a minor portion of his new book, but an issue with moral implications I thought appropriate to this forum.

 

I think what was controversial about Wilson's theory was the marriage of biology and social behavior. He claims that humans are genetically predisposed to social cooperation. He claims that there are two levels of natural selection - individual and group. The existence of two levels of selection are what, I think, caused the blow back.

 

Frankly, I don't know enough to challenge him, but his case is strong and it makes a lot of sense to me. To claim our social behavior, which is a human universal, is strictly cultural is, IMO, a reach. If not genetic, how do we explain the social behavior of ants?

 

George

 

I agree. His case is strong. What concerns me is this.

 

In Conscilience, Wilson make a strong case that what we need to make a choice to move in the direction of cooperation, or fail to meet the ethical challenges presented by technology.

 

The Dalai Lama shares this view, as well.

 

Wilson has said that religion must remain a force in the development of ethical systems that are capable of constraining technology. There is the power here of a unified voice working towards a common goal.

 

Myron

 

Edit to add:

 

I'm not sure how we go about dealing with Nazi Germany and eugenics in this age. Who will take the lead? This questions bothers me,.

Edited by minsocal
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In Conscilience, Wilson make a strong case that what we need to make a choice to move in the direction of cooperation, or fail to meet the ethical challenges presented by technology.

 

Myron, So far in his new book (I am about 70% through), he hasn't raised this issue except for part of one section on current evolutionary forces.

 

He seems to be arguing that cooperation is a natural, genetically determined part of being human - there is no choice, that is who we are. But, clearly it can lead to good or bad. In fact, he thinks that competition, including war, is part of the nature of our species (i.e. in-group cooperation in competition with out-groups).

 

George

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Myron, So far in his new book (I am about 70% through), he hasn't raised this issue except for part of one section on current evolutionary forces.

 

He seems to be arguing that cooperation is a natural, genetically determined part of being human - there is no choice, that is who we are. But, clearly it can lead to good or bad. In fact, he thinks that competition, including war, is part of the nature of our species (i.e. in-group cooperation in competition with out-groups).

 

George

 

George, I agree with Wilson where he argues in Conscilience that we need to bring biology into the social sciences. However, reading between the lines, it seems that these groups are in competition with each other. As you noted, Wilson himself has only recently moved from out-group to possible in-group status.

 

While I am very concerned about the facts of evolution and social functioning, in recent years I have spent more time thinking about how society should go about developing ethical systms approriate to our time and place. Pinker, in The Blank Slate, says that the whole program has "been hijacked by an effort to legislate the correct answer." If true, this would lead us nowhere?

 

Myron

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While I am very concerned about the facts of evolution and social functioning, in recent years I have spent more time thinking about how society should go about developing ethical systms approriate to our time and place. Pinker, in The Blank Slate, says that the whole program has "been hijacked by an effort to legislate the correct answer." If true, this would lead us nowhere?

 

On the other hand, in Pinker's latest book, he makes the case that we are making tremendous progress on the violence front.

 

I think Pinker, Haidt, Wilson and others recognize that we humans are of two natures and these are often in tension. Hopefully, reason also will play a role.

 

It seems to me that the challenge is not changing our genetic, in-group/out-group predisposition, but trying to broaden the in-group and show a little more understanding of the out-group. We are endowed with an empathy module. Maybe, we need to just turn it up a little.

 

George

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On the other hand, in Pinker's latest book, he makes the case that we are making tremendous progress on the violence front.

 

I think Pinker, Haidt, Wilson and others recognize that we humans are of two natures and these are often in tension. Hopefully, reason also will play a role.

 

It seems to me that the challenge is not changing our genetic, in-group/out-group predisposition, but trying to broaden the in-group and show a little more understanding of the out-group. We are endowed with an empathy module. Maybe, we need to just turn it up a little.

 

George

 

George, I have an unusual biological barometer. I like your statement and, literally, it gave me goosebumps. Well said.

 

Myron

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  • 2 weeks later...

 

Wilson is opposed to what he calls "eugenic manipulation." What sayeth PCs? Should all genetic manipulation of humans be baned? How about therapeutic? What about animals? plants?

 

George

 

I don't think it will lead to a healthy society. Though it may lead to a higher degree of intelligence. I'd like to see all genetic manipulation be banned save the portion done for medical relief. We have already evolved, for the most part, to pick the prettiest, most well built, and slightly smarter person for our mates. Natural selection is a beautiful thing.

 

I don't trust GMO food though. Our internal organs have become highly tuned to what it needs to survive. If you start modifying our foodstuffs there will be consequences internally. I've already read about sheep who've been fed GMO foods becoming sterile and/or having false pregnancies at a much higher rate. While I don't claim to be the same as a sheep, I am reluctant to take the chance. A sheep is a mammal and so are we so why invite the possibility of disaster?

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